“Fobbit” is a portmanteau word, which means that it is two different words packed up in one (like a portmanteau suitcase). The concept of the portmanteau word was developed by Lewis Carroll in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, when he coined the word "slithy" to describe a character who manages to be slimy and lithe all at once. Fobbit also combines two very different concepts: the "Forward Operating Base," which an Army unit uses to occupy hostile territory, and the hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkein's universe, who rarely venture past their comfortable rural home. A fobbit, therefore, is a soldier who stays within the safe cordon of the forward base --- in this particular instance, one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in occupied Iraq.
For a civilian reader --- and FOBBIT deserves a wide non-military audience --- the world of FOB Triumph may be a bit like going through the looking glass. However, the central metaphor for the book isn't inspired by Lewis Carroll. Instead, it is inspired, at least in part, by a certain light 1993 romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. This might be somewhat of a surprise. The novel is set in the midst of the occupation of Iraq by American forces, and features bloodshed, mayhem, at least one war crime, and omnipresent sand, heat and privation. On the surface , the relationship between the movie and the novel sounds like it might not be the best pairing.
"...a scathing, deeply felt diatribe against military disasters large and small, and an often-hilarious examination of very human, very weak characters living next door to a combat zone."
The film, of course, is Groundhog Day, and its central premise is that Phil Connors, Murray's character, is trapped into reliving the same day over and over again. The characters in David Abrams' debut novel identify with the concept, if not the specific reality, of the movie. The daily round for the Fobbits involves press releases and PowerPoint presentations, punctuated by news of explosions, mortar rounds, and sudden violent death. The Fobbits are in the war but not of the war, and the sameness, repetition and constant grinding of the gears of war seem endless and hopeless.
Groundhog Day, at its core, is a movie about escape. Phil Connors tries every conceivable stratagem to get out of his private hell, until he realizes at the end that it can become his private heaven. The hell of wartime Iraq in FOBBIT is unadulterated by anything other than the promise of escape. Unlike Murray's character, the Fobbits know that escape is possible. For them, it is just a matter of time until their odometer clicks over and they are relieved to go back to the States. The lack of escape options burnishes Connors' character; the knowledge that their time in Iraq is short eats away at the character of the Fobbits. All they want to do is to burrow as deep as they can within their base, watch pirated DVDs, and stay alive.
Abrams describes his Fobbits as being soft, marshmallow to the core, and inspired by little more than self-preservation. This makes them the object of scorn from their fellow soldiers, but it may endear them to the casual civilian reader, who can more easily imagine himself in such a role if he was somehow forced into a similar situation. The Fobbits are also filled with self-pity, which is annoying but forgivable under the circumstances.
What makes most of Abrams’ characters unlikable is not their character flaws but their incompetence. To the extent that FOBBIT has a hero, it is Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., who toils at preparing press releases about that day’s disaster. Gooding is a capable writer (as we see from his diary entries), but he is stuck writing military doublespeak and is ineffectual in every other area of his life. His superiors are self-aggrandizing nincompoops. The combat troops dither in situations when they should be aggressive, and fumble when they should be patient.
Most of this is done for comic effect, and FOBBIT is a bleakly effective comedy. Not a lot of writers can get comedy out of war crimes, but Abrams, an Iraq war veteran himself, is able to portray not just the pointlessness and stupidity of the occupation but also its absurdity. Abrams has a keen eye for detail, which he applies relentlessly to the odd customs of FOB Triumph and its denizens --- not to mention the outside world, which comes in for no small share of ridicule.
FOBBIT is anti-sentimental, anti-heroic and anti-climactic. To the extent that it is for anything, it is for deep blue pools at resort hotels, tall cold cans of illicit Australian beer, and irony as thick and choking as a Baghdad sandstorm. Like Carroll’s portmanteau suitcase, FOBBIT is two things in one --- a scathing, deeply felt diatribe against military disasters large and small, and an often-hilarious examination of very human, very weak characters living next door to a combat zone. The good news is that you only have to buy one copy, and you should waste no time in doing so.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on September 21, 2012
- Publication Date: September 4, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat
- ISBN-10: 0802120326
- ISBN-13: 9780802120328